Beto O’Rourke ended his presidential campaign Friday afternoon, and perhaps you’ve forgotten him already. Over the last 22 months, we’ve learned that O’Rourke is not that interesting as a potential national leader. How Democrats and many members of the mainstream media reacted to O’Rourke is much more interesting.
Almost any action by anyone in politics can be interpreted in wildly different ways, depending upon the perspective of the person covering it. If Rahm Emanuel were a Republican, the old stories about him stabbing a table with a steak knife and screaming that all of his enemies would be dead, threatening Tony Blair with profanities, and sending a dead fish to a pollster would not be seen as wild and crazy tales about a lovable, hard-charging competitor. If Emanuel were a Republican, he would be covered as a rage-filled psychopath who probably needs to be committed in an institution. If George W. Bush had been a Democrat, he would be widely described as an inspiring recovering alcoholic who turned his life around, became a dedicated husband and father, and a unifying leader who wisely declared, “we have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move.”
Last year I wrote that “the endless glowing profiles of O’Rourke in every publication from Vanity Fair to Spin to Rolling Stone to Town & Country represent the national media’s worsening challenge in differentiating between what it wants to see happen and what is actually happening.” Left-leaning writers and editors and producers across the country desperately wanted to see a Democrat who could win in Texas and convinced themselves that O’Rourke was that guy. To his credit, he came closer than any other Democrat has in a generation. That is still about 215,000 votes short.
What was striking about all of those 2018 profiles was how . . . surface-oriented they were, regularly mentioning O’Rourke’s old punk rock band, the skateboarding, the casual profanity which was inevitably interpreted as some sort of authenticity, the descriptions of his sweat, the inevitable reference to his Kennedy-esque looks and absence of any mention of his Kennedy-esque driving record. The tone and style of the profiles of O’Rourke weren’t all that different from the profiles of actors, musicians, and directors in Vanity Fair, GQ, and other celebrity magazines — a lot of personality and anecdotes and perfectly cinematic photo shoots. You could read for pages with little mention of anything O’Rourke had done in Congress, because as a member of the minority party, he hadn’t done much. The one race Barack Obama ever lost in his life, a congressional bid against Representative Bobby Rush, the incumbent dismantled the young and ambitious Obama with one devastating question: “Just what’s he done? I mean, what’s he done?” One could fairly put the same question to O’Rourke.
O’Rourke had charisma, along with genuinely odd behavior like trying to trick his wife into eating baby poop. He had a general sense that he wanted the country to have more acceptance of illegal immigrants, fewer guns in the hands of private citizens, higher taxes on the rich, and that churches that opposed gay marriage ought to lose their tax-exempt status. But he had only the vaguest idea on how to get to there and little interest in laying out a roadmap. Elizabeth Warren had a plan for everything; O’Rourke was going to wing it.
This allergy to details led to a rather unfocused presidential effort. The O’Rourke campaign started as centrist happy talk but, when struggling, led to the candidate promising, “Hell yes, we’re going to take away your AR-15!” In the June primary debate, Julian Castro demonstrated that O’Rourke was mixing up sections of immigration law, and jabbed, “I think you should do your homework.” His platitude-filled speeches started to sound pretty empty. The traits that charmed visiting correspondents in Texas a year ago started to look silly — like jumping onto tables and countertops in Iowa.
Beto O’Rourke did not lose anything between 2018 and 2019 — er, other than a Senate race. He is essentially the same man he was a year ago. The biggest thing that changed was that now he was running against other Democrats that some members of the media liked better. Towards the end of summer, O’Rourke had no choice but to joke about how differently he was perceived, compared to the Senate race. Late-night host Seth Meyers asked him, “You ran against Ted Cruz in a Senate campaign. Do you ever miss how easy it was to be different from Ted Cruz?” “Where is Ted Cruz when you need him?” O’Rourke joked. (“In the Senate,” Cruz replied via Twitter.)
This year, the whole country got to see the Beto O’Rourke that some of us have seen from the beginning. Years from now, when O’Rourke’s name is mentioned, Democrats will wonder why they got so excited about him once. He is the political equivalent of Reebok’s Dan and Dave competition, the Macarena, The Blair Witch Project, and any other short-lived trend that seems inexplicable in retrospect.